Beyond Heaven and Earth: A Cognitive Theory of Religion

MIT Press (Spring 2022)


For the past few decades I have been working with a group of scholars in the study of religion who are trying to bring Donald Davidson's philosophy, a form of pragmatism known as anomalous monism, to bear on religion. This book represents a culmination of my own efforts in that direction. I argue that more interdisciplinary work between the humanities and the natural sciences should be carried out. In order to do so this requires, first, that we make the dominant metaphysics that undergird the various disciplines of science and humanities more explicit, and second, that we reject those versions of metaphysics that maintain simple monisms and radical dualisms.

The position I make explicit and argue in favor for as an alternative is based on anomalous monism, which finds that reality is metaphysically one but because of the limits of language and human vocabulary must be described in at least two radically distinct ways: in terms of the mental and in terms of the physical or material. The relation between the mental and material cannot be described in lawlike ways, and this opens the door for humanistic pursuits and naturalist research to be run in parallel, as long as we understand that there is a dynamic and nonlinear relation between the two.

In the book I thus offer a blueprint for one way in which the humanities and natural sciences can have a mutually respectful and productive conversation between them. I regard this as an urgent problem because in recent years these academic cultures have only become more estranged. In an era when human level decisions can impact life on earth so dramatically, for example climate change, such a conversation is required now more than ever.

In the book, I frame these problems with a very basic question, what is the nature of religious meaning? To answer this question requires we think about how complex semantic meaning can emerge from more simple types of information. In his later work, Davidson called this the problem of predication: how can the meaning of the whole arise from its component parts? I argue in the book that this is the core question for understanding the evolution and development of religion.

This question about meaning is vital for making sense of growing divide between the humanities and natural sciences. I argue that the course of this divide must be reversed, but not necessarily through the consilience approach so popular today. Rather we reverse it by making our metaphysical assumptions more explicit, and then having honest open dialogue about where we disagree. My book is rather unique in this approach. Consilience arguments like Slingerland's What science offers the humanities are laudable but view the issue from the wrong perspective. The question should not be what does science offer to the humanities, but rather, what do the humanities and hard sciences offer to one another in mutually respectful conversation? I think my book will be a major contribution to the existing literature in this respect, and I think I am exceptionally qualified to carry out such an effort because of my relatively unique academic training.

My education has come from two diametrically opposed realms of academic culture, each of them offering their own narratives for the best way to study religion. In graduate school at the University of California, Santa Barbara, the narrative was mostly from continental philosophy and critical theory. Religion is a construction best understood as connected to politics and power. In my postgrad work I was stationed in Aarhus, Denmark in the heyday of “cognitive science of religion,” when that field was less splintered. There, the leading idea was that religion is a natural phenomenon, a product of evolution, and can hence be explained using natural science. This book emerges out of conversations and disagreements I have had since then with brilliant friends and colleagues from these two seemingly opposing sides. I have always thought there must be a way for all of us to get along, for there are advantages and disadvantages to both ways of looking at religion. I think anomalous monism provides a powerful perspective for bringing these cultures closer together.



Introduction: You Can Lead A Horse To Water

Chapter One: Non-Dual Semantics

Chapter Two: Fiction's Frictions

Chapter Three: Animal Economies Of Information

Chapter Four: Books Of Creation

Chapter Five: Bright Light, New Religion

Chapter Six: Intersubjectivity And Intimacy

Conclusion: On The Limits Of The Unlimited

New Book Project



Maurits Cornelis Escher (1898 - 1972)